The Colored President: A story about the other Obama painting you didn't see

The Colored President by Phetus
The Colored President by Phetus

Just before the November 4th election of former Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, as the nation’s first African American president, the media were reporting on the controversial claim of copyright infringement brought by the Associated Press against contemporary urban artist, Shepard Fairey.

The AP claims Fairey’s portrait of Obama directly infringes on the AP’s original photograph of the future President. The longest running news organization in the United States claims they weren’t asked permission to use the photo for painting, nor were they approached to license the photo for merchandise that incorporated the image.

The original photograph was taken by former AP photographer, Mannie Garcia, during an event at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Fairey claims “fair use,” because he did not financially benefit for his work, even though the image he created was used applied to signed posters and other memorabilia the committee to elect Obama sold to raise money for the campaign.

Obama Photo (Associated Press) and Shepard Fairey poster "Hope"
Obama Photo (Courtesy Associated Press), Shepard Fairey poster "Hope"

While the media focused on the unfolding story of Fairey vs. the Associated Press, which resulted in a recent lawsuit by Fairey against the AP after negotiations broke down, the contemporary urban artist, Phetus, a Long Island native, was developing his own representation of Barack Obama’s message. In the back room of a one story, non-descript office space off Rt. 100 in Farmingdale, NY, the artist’s portrait (shown above) consisting of multi-colored dabs of paint on  72 x 48 inch canvas began to take shape. The Colored President would soon be hanging on a wall in the back hallway of the building’s front office alongside 25 or so other paintings all shapes and sizes by the artist. I thought to myself, “will anyone ever see this?”

In the past, many of Phetus’s works were commissioned by a client and friend of the company, on whose wall The Colored President was hung. About a month and a half before the election, the client commissioned a web site, ArtWeCan.com (a URL  I’d thought up), with intent of possibly promoting the painting and accompanying illustrations by Rolo—a friend and colleague of Phetus—with the goal of donating all proceeds to the Obama campaign. Maybe Phetus and Rolo would get some publicity for their effort, which would lead to other opportunities.

As the election drew near, we launched ArtWeCan.com, but failed to get the word out with less than two weeks left in the campaign. Without any promotion or marketing, there were no bids on signed prints of the painting, the painting itself or Rolo’s incredible political caricatures.

The election came and went. The painting was still on the wall.

The Donation

It was a cold Saturday night in December. I could have stayed home that night, but I wanted to make the effort to celebrate my former colleague from my last job, Trisha O’Neil’s birthday.  I drove into the Theater District of Manhattan—about an hour drive from my place in Westchester—and parked on 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.

I arrived a bit late and stayed for about an hour and half. After saying my goodbyes, I bundled up and headed back out into the cold winter air.  It was around 11:30 pm and I was getting hungry, so I looked around to see what my options were for a fast bite. The corner pizza shop on the east side of 8th Avenue looked good, so I quckly crossed the street and ducked in to order a slice and Diet Coke. I took a table by the front door and noticed two smartly dressed young women sitting across from me. From their outfits, I thought they might be heading out to a club.

After the ArtWeCan project had concluded, I’d begun work on the information architecture for a redesign of the Web site of an urban record label, F Records. We were also in the process of shooting a music video for the label’s first artist, Draft. Always the networker and excited about the work we’d just done with the video, I approached the two to tell them about Draft. Given my history in the music biz, it’s pretty much second nature to promote whatever your working on. With music, it’s always word of mouth that starts the buzz.

I approached them and and mentioned working with with F Records and Draft. One of the women asked me, “what do you know about hip-hop?” I replied that I’d been a DJ for many years and that I’d been a fan of hip hop since the early 80’s. She proceeded to tell me that she worked for HSAN, which is the acronym for Russel Simmons non-profit organization, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The group works to confront issues facing the urban community. They have organized a number of televised workshops to seek ways to reduce violence and promote positivity in hip-hop.

In the early 90s, I’d come to New York from Boston to attend the New Music Seminar, one of my first professional music conferences. As a DJ, of course I’d known all along about Russel Simmons record label, Def Jam Recordings. I’d even saved up enough money to visit the label and purchase a Def Jam varsity jacket–a prized possession for any DJ cutting their teeth in the music industry. Almost 20-years later, I was networking in a pizza shop on 8th Avenue with one of Russel’s employees.

It was getting late and I needed to head home. I took the young lady’s card and promised to follow up with her to see how we could work together on the Draft project. We caught up a week later by phone. She mentioned HSAN was hosting an auction during their Inaugural Ball, which was to take place the night before Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States in Washington DC.

“An auction?” I thought, maybe there was an opportunity for us to partner with HSAN to auction The Colored President during the Inaugural Ball? After checking with the client and artist, we agreed to donate the painting to HSAN. There was no point in leaving such an amazing painting on a wall few people would ever see. If it was sold during the ball, someone would walk away with a piece of American history with the proceeds going to a worthy charitable cause. It was a win-win for everyone—or so I thought.

Getting It There Is The Hard Part

Two weeks before HSAN’s Inaugural Ball, I tried to contact my young lady friend at HSAN to discuss the specifics surrounding the donation. We wanted to make sure that we would get photos and video from the event, so that we could publicize the donation and the artist’s role in the painting. Days went by with no word from my new friend at HSAN to discuss how they were going to receive the painting. At 72 x 48 inches, its size alone prevents it from being easily transported.

I finally reached her the two weeks before the event by email and she promised to get back to me. I waited, then waited some more. On Thursday before the event, I was very concerned that what we’d agreed to was not going to happen. A friend of mine is an aquaintance of the woman. I called her, frantic, tring to figure out how to get in touch with HSAN, who don’t even have a phone number listed on their web site. I tried her one last time late Thursday night on her mobile phone and was surprised that she answered. We discussed the painting and she was supposed to call me the next morning. By 12 noon, I hadn’t heard anything and was starting to worry. It was now Friday and I wasn’t sure how we were going to get the painting to HSAN. I also began to wonder how they were going to get the painting to the event location in Washington D.C.

Around 1 pm, we finally spoke and she confirmed their desire to get the painting. When I asked her if they were going to pick it up or if we could drop it off, her reply was, “well, can you send it there?” Here we are, donating a 72 x 48 inch painting of Barck Obama that could potentially raise thousands of dollars for the organization, and they are asking us to send it to DC at the last minute! Keep in mind, Monday was Martin Luther King Day. Who could we get to deliver it on a national holiday?

We had the our office manager contact United Parcel Service (UPS to you and me) about shipping. They told us as long as it was a total of 11o inches, they would take the painting at their Farmingdale location, which was only two-blocks from our office. I was relieved, but that relief was short-lived.

Phetus helped me wrap up the painting, then he drove it over to the UPS facility, two-blocks away. They took one look at it and told him they wouldn’t take it. He called me at 5:30 PM with the news. We had to find another way to get it there. We discussed internally and thought, short of driving it there, it would be impossible to deliver the painting by Monday to Washington. The office manager called UPS and they told her that we could bring it to their freight facility at JFK Airport, where they accept oversize items.

Phetus had driven the painting to the UPS facility near the office, balancing it on the roof of his car. It was too big for anyone’s vehicle, and it was also Friday night. No one seemed interested enough to get it there. We started to think it was a lost opportunity. But, I had another idea.

Minutes To Spare

I generally head into Manhattan from Long Island after work on Fridays. Disappointed that the painting was not going to get to the event, I resigned myself to driving into the city with the knowledge that weeks worth of set up fell apart in an instant. Poor planning? Miscommunication? Too big of an idea? Maybe none, or maybe all of the above. Disappointed, I climbed into the drivers seat. My colleague, Melanie was along for the ride, since she needed a ride into the city, as well.

As we were driving, I remembered Marissa said UPS told her if we got the painting to them by 11 pm it would go on the truck and make it to DC for Monday delivery. I’m the kind of guy who hates to fail and this was no exception. I needed to find a way to make it out to JFK by 11 pm, with the knowledge that I had an 8 PM appointment on 12th Street and 6th Avenue? Clearly, most people refrain from that type of travel in and out of the city. I guess I’m not one of them.

I figured if I rented a cargo van from the U-Haul facility on W. 23rd St between 9th and 10th, I could cut my meeting short, then drive back out to Long Island to get the painting by 10 PM. JFK is about 25 minutes from the office. I’d have about 30 minutes to find the location of the UPS shipping facility. Could I make it? If the stars aligned correct, yes, I could.

While I drove, Melanie called U-Haul to reserve a cargo van. We arrived in Manhattan at about 7 PM. I dropped her off and made my way over to 11th Street and 6th Avenue, where I found a spot for my car. I figured it would be hard to find a legal space near the U-Haul facility, so I decided to drop the car on 11th and take a cab over to the West Side to get the cargo van. After signing the paperwork, I drove the van to my meeting and got another legal space. What luck!

I cut the meeting short, apologizing to my friend and telling him what I was about to attempt. I said something to the effect that people have done crazier things, then set out to see if I could accomplish the mision at hand. By 9:15 PM, I was travelling through the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Things were looking good. I’d make it to Farmingdale by 10 PM and have the painting to JFK by 11 PM. Sure enough, my plan was working out as intended…or, so I thought.

At about 10:15 PM, I was driving West on the Southern State Parkway, about 15 minutes from my destination. Traffic was moving smoothly with no reason to worry that I wouldn’t make it in time. All of a sudden, about 3 cars in front of me, I saw a puff of smoke and the headlights of a car spinning around, facing the wrong direction. A woman in a two-door coupe had smacked the highway divider and bounced into the travel lane. The same lane as me! I thought to myself, “oh, no..what now?”

As I approached the accident scene, an unmarked police cruiser that had been in front of me for most of the drive, pulled up to the woman’s vehicle. Relieved that someone would be albe to help her, I scooted around the accident and continued on my way to JFK. Coincidentally, about an hour later, Phetus would get stuck in the same traffic caused by the accident I’d just seen.

As I made my way to 149th Avenue in Queens, I figured I had plenty of time. It was now about 10:40 PM. “20 minutes to spare!” Not bad. I was happy with that, but like usual, I shouldn’t have spoken too soon. I got to 149th Avenue, but couldn’t find the facility. I drove in circles for 10 minutes trying to figure out where the drop-off point was. At that point, I began to curse and fret that I wouldn’t find it.

Marissa had given me the 1-800 phone number for UPS customer service and the name of the person to look for at the UPS facility. With about 10 minutes to spare, I pulled over to call.  The customer service representative on the other end transferred me to a woman in the building I’d been looking for. She proceeded to talk me throught the directions. Given her instrcutions, I was directly in front of the building, but there was no UPS sign anywhere! At least one that I could see.

With 7 minutes to go, I discovered a security booth at the gate of a large building. I jumped out and asked him if this was UPS. “Yes, it sure is” he said. What a relief! I asked him, “where is the sign?” He pointed to a dark corner of the building, where I saw the unlit UPS sign high above. Of course I couldn’t find the place! Who could see a sign at 11 o’clock at night on a building that was blocks from the nearest main thoroughfare?

The guard asked me who I was there to see. I quickly told him that I was looking for a guy named, Joe Vitale. He pointed to a car parked against the fence and said, “That’s Joe, right there.” Great! Joe’s about to leave. I ran over to the car and told Joe who I was and what I was there for. The time was 5 minutes of 11. Joe told me that it was too late. He said, “the truck closed it’s doors.” I told him that he told Marissa as long as I was here before 11, which I was, he’d get the painting on the truck.

Fortunately, I’d made the picture the screen saver on my iPhone. I whipped out the phone, showed him the picture and told him, “this painting has to make Russel Simmons event on Monday in Washington DC.” He thought it about it for a second and asked, “Russel Simmons?” I said, “yes, Russel Simmons.” Joe replied, “okay, let me call the truck and see if I can get him to pull around..we’ll throw the painting in the back.” And it happened just like that. The truck pulled around, we opened the doors and slid the painting in. Minutes later, it was on its way to Washington DC to be auctioned off at HSAN’s Inaugural Ball. At least that’s what I thought would happen.

The Rest Of The Story

The following  Monday, I learned that the painting arrived and was displayed on stage during the Inaugural Ball. Anyone who saw it thought it was pretty amazing. I would hear from someone who was there, that the painting “totally made the party.” He said there really was no other Obama memorabilia there and that the painting sort of cemented the reason everyone was their in the first place. It helped to focus the event and its purpose. That was great to hear.

I was relieved. The painting arrived and they were able to display it. The party was over and everyone was celebrating Obama’s historial moment. My concern turned from getting the painting there to what happened to it, and if we were going to get some mileage out of it for Phetus, who is so deserving for agreeing to donate it in the first place.

To make a long story short, the next few days went by with no feedback from HSAN. Zero. Nothing. Nada. I called my contact, sent emails and even tried to get friends to call. No response. After all we’d done to get the painting there, my contact at HSAN didn’t even have the courtesy to let us know what happened to the painting and if we would get pictures or footage from the event, which is really all we asked for. Truth be told, to this day, March 3, 2008, they have yet to provide anything tangible. That being said, we’ve asked for the painting to be returned, because we found out that it never did get auctioned. The moment has been lost. Even if they did sell it now, it’s too late.

Trying to get a painting back from an organization with poor communication in the first place is difficult, but it was becoming near impossible, until things would come full circle only days later.

The National Hip-Hop Museum

Three weeks ago, I had two doctor appointments in Manhattan. Between appointments, I figured I’d kil some time checking my emails on the free wireless at Cosi, a sandwich and salad shop on 13th and Broadway. Just like in that pizza shop a few months earlier, I overheard a couple of guys across from me talking about the music business and how networking is a very important tool in building your business. Taking that as a cue, I introduced myself to them and learned that one of them was an attorney working with the organizers of the National Hip Hop Museum. I thought to myself, “wow, a national hip-hiop museum!” Given my early love of hip-hop and DJ culture roots, of course, I wanted to hear more.

After they finished their meeting, my new friend and I chatted about the museum, the music business and the Internet. He mentioned they needed someone to come on board and help with Internet related affairs for the organization. Seeing a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something really special, we agreed to meet the next night. The location–the offices of HSAN! That’s right, the same place where my contact wouldn’t answer my calls, I was now being invited to in a roundabout way! How crazy is that?

The next night, I met with Craig Wilson, President of the museum and John Ambrose, the attorney I’d met on Monday at Cosi. By that Friday, I became the new Director of Interactive to the National Hip-Hop Museum. The position is an advisory role and I’m helping the facilitate their interactive initiatives. That’s a story for another post.

On that Friday, I returned to the offices of HSAN and was introduced to Dr. Ben Chivas, the organizations Chairman and President. He had no idea that it was I who had facilitated the donation of the painting to his organization. How could he know? I wasn’t on his radar because my contact never told him who had donated the painting in the first place.

We ended up discussing the painting and what were the next steps. I’ll end the story here, as the painting seems to making its way back to our offices. Stay tuned for the next installment of The Colored President. It’s sure to be a good one.

— by Tony Zeoli

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